Gina B. Nahai: On Writing The Luminous Heart of Jonah S.
To celebrate the release of The Luminous Heart of Jonah S., we’re pleased to feature a statement from author Gina B. Nahai on the gains and losses of trading in a deep-rooted identity for a multitude of others.
I don’t know what took me so long, but I had lived in Los Angeles for a decade and a half before I realized I was something of a mystery to most Americans. I had left Iran at age thirteen to go to boarding school in Europe, and moved to LA two years before the revolution. At UCLA in those early years, I fielded such well-intended questions as, “Did you have cars or do people ride camels to school in Iran?” Hardly anyone knew what continent the country was on; those who did (mostly ex-CIA agents, oil company executives, or hippie holdovers) were shocked to learn there had been Jews in Iran. By the time they figured it out, during the Iran hostage crisis, the ayatollahs were funding terrorist attacks around the globe and Beverly Hills was under occupation by Iranian refugees.
Iranian Jews are the oldest Jewish population in Diaspora, yet the world only learned of their existence some thirty years ago. Their origins date back to the destruction of the First Temple, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a written account of their history that predates the 1990s. Today, there are more Iranians Jews in Los Angeles than anywhere else in the world, including Iran. Their presence has permanently altered the face and character of the city. Yet the prevailing impression of the community among the “natives” is that of a largely insular, highly inscrutable, and painfully inflexible people who have little interest in integrating with “American” society.
As strange and confusing as we are to outside observers, we’re even more of an enigma to ourselves. For 3,000 years in Iran, we managed to maintain a distinct identity and live by a well-defined set of laws. We were a hybrid people—as much Iranian as Jewish—and remained that way in the face of all the monumental forces of history. From Babylonian exile to the Great Persian Empire, from Zoroastrianism to Islam, from the Ottomans to the Qajars, we survived as a nation by adhering to a rigid ethic that drew equally from Persian and Jewish culture. Then we came to Los Angeles and, in a mere thirty years, found ourselves questioning every inviolable truth and constant reality we had known. For some, this ideological rootlessness has been a blessing and a liberation; for others, it is an irreparable loss.
What do you gain, and lose, when you trade a 3,000-year-old culture in exchange for the thousand other identities that make up the character of America and the soul of Los Angeles? This is the question that launched The Luminous Heart of Jonah S.
GINA B. NAHAI is a best-selling author, columnist, and full-time lecturer at USC’s Master of Professional Writing Program. Her novels have been translated into eighteen languages, and have been selected as “Best Books of the Year” by the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune. She has also been a finalist for the Orange Prize, the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and the Harold U. Ribalow Prize, and has won the Los Angeles Arts Council Award, the Persian Heritage Foundation’s Award, the Simon Rockower Award, and the Phi Kappa Phi Award. Her writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles magazine, Publishers Weekly, and the Huffington Post, among others. She writes a monthly column for the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, and is a three-time finalist for an LA Press Club Award. Nahai holds a BA and a Masters degree in International Relations from UCLA, and a Master of Professional Writing from USC. She’s a former consultant for the Rand Corporation, and a frequent lecturer on the politics of pre- and postrevolutionary Iran. The Luminous Heart of Jonah S. is her latest novel.
Posted: Oct 14, 2014
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